The Ohio State football team earned its first Big Ten win of the season Saturday, beating Wisconsin 31-24 behind four touchdown passes from junior quarterback Braxton Miller. Going 1-0 in the conference came at a price, though, as the Buckeyes (5-0) lost senior safety Christian Bryant late in the game to an ankle injury.
Bryant broke his left ankle on Wisconsin’s (3-2) second-to-last play from scrimmage. The three-year starter, and one of the leaders of OSU’s defensive unit, was attempting to make a tackle on Wisconsin senior running back James White at the end of a 13-yard reception when teammate sophomore linebacker Joshua Perry landed on his ankle.
OSU coach Urban Meyer did not hide his emotional reaction to the injury during his postgame press conference. He slammed the podium with his hand at one point during his opening statement and called Bryant’s injury the “hard part of the game.”
“That’s the hardest part of this whole job,” Meyer said. “That darn kid has done so much for our program, he’s come so far. Incredible leadership skills, and he’s going to be even more valuable outside of football. I love that guy.”
Bryant was unable to put any weight on his injured ankle as he was helped off the field by two OSU trainers.
Meyer said Bryant was transported to the hospital in an ambulance after the game to have surgery. He did not say how long he expects the injury to keep Bryant out.
Bryant was “devastated” about the injury, Meyer said, and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said Bryant was “shedding tears.”
“You know how hard he’s worked,” Fickell said. “You know how much he’s put into this, you know how much he’s grown. He had incredible expectations. When we put as much pressure on these guys as we do, sometimes those things hurt because they think they’re letting us down, they’re letting their buddies down.”
Bryant’s teammates also expressed their emotions about the injury.
“Heart-wrenching is the only word to say,” said redshirt-senior left tackle Jack Mewhort. “He’s a great friend and a great football player and leader. It’s hard losing a guy like that.”
Junior outside linebacker Ryan Shazier said Bryant is “like (his) big brother.”
“(Bryant’s injury) really hurt me deep inside,” Shazier said. “You don’t know what you’re going to do without your brother, so I don’t know what I can do without him.”
Redshirt-senior C.J. Barnett, who starts alongside Bryant at safety, said the injury made Saturday’s win “bittersweet.”
“We’re going to have to pick it up for him, find a replacement and his leadership’s going to be missed,” Barnett said. “Other leaders are going to carry some more weight.”
In his third season as a starter on OSU’s defense, Bryant is one of the Buckeyes’ eight captains. He is one of three captains who plays defense for OSU, along with Barnett and Shazier.
The Buckeyes are likely to turn to redshirt-senior Corey Brown and redshirt-sophomore Ron Tanner, who have both seen playing time at safety for OSU this season, to take Bryant’s place in the lineup. The injury could also be an opportunity for freshman Vonn Bell to see more playing time on defense. Bell is listed as a nickel cornerback on OSU’s depth chart, but as a safety on the roster.
Bryant’s leadership will be difficult to replace, Meyer said, and Fickell called Bryant the “heart and soul” of OSU’s defense.
“We say that sometimes about a bunch of different guys, but (Bryant is) a guy that’s come a long way for us,” Fickell said. “It’s not just his play on the field, it’s what he brings every day in the meeting rooms, in the classrooms, in those types of situations.”
Bryant had 22 tackles, an interception and two pass breakups in OSU’s first five games. A second-team all-Big Ten selection in 2012, he was named to preseason watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski and Jim Thorpe awards.
Barnett said Bryant’s “fierceness and tenacity” will be missed.
“He’s just like a little pit bull out there, man, and that’s needed on defense,” Barnett said. “He brings a lot of energy.”
Shazier said Bryant is a “hype man” for the secondary.
“He’s just a little wiry guy, he loves to talk junk,” Shazier said. “It’s just fun playing with him.”
Bryant is “there when you need him” on the back end of the OSU defense, Shazier said.
“He’s the backstop,” Shazier said. “He’s good on the run fits, he’s good on the pass, he makes hard hits.”
Bryant’s experience and leadership, however, will make it tough for any one player to fill his shoes.
“You can’t replace him,” Fickell said. “I’m not going to sit here and say that we’re going to have someone go in there and be the same heart and soul … but that just means that we gotta do something different. Maybe (junior defensive lineman) Michael Bennett’s got to be a better leader. (Junior linebacker) Curtis Grant’s got to be a bigger leader. (Junior cornerback) Doran Grant’s got to be a bigger leader.”
Nonetheless, Fickell said the Buckeyes — including Bryant — cannot let the injury dip their morales.
“We can’t drop our heads about it, we just got to continue to move on,” Fickell said. “I grabbed (Bryant) and said, ‘Hey, you can’t have your head down, man, you’re a big part of this, whether you’re on the field or you’re not. You’re going to be a leader, you’re going to be a coach, you’re going to be that guy that’s still going to be an inspiration to us.’”
Shazier said the Buckeyes are going to “keep playing the rest of this season for (Bryant).”
“We just going to keep grinding and keep focusing on what we have to do,” Shazier said.
The 5-0 Buckeyes will not have Bryant on the field, but will be looking for the program’s 18th consecutive win Saturday at 8 p.m. when the team takes on No. 16 Northwestern (4-0) in Evanston, Ill.